Environmental Values of Open Day Visitors

Authors

Abstract

The United Nations’ Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) urges every educator to promote pro-environmental understanding in all learners. This project establishes benchmarks for an examination of the impact of a Geographical education through a questionnaire survey of potential students and their parents attending a Brookes Open Day in 2005 and 2006. Despite minor differences between the response patterns across the divides of generation, gender, year of survey and whether the respondents were working alone or as a parent/offspring pair, there is general support for the ideal and ethos of ESD including a greater emphasis on responsibilities than rights and social-altruistic and biospheric values rather than egotistic.

Introduction

In 2005, the United Nations launched its Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, which proposes that education takes greater responsibility for tackling the causes of environmental degradation (UNESCO, 2006). The Decade charges every educational institution to help learners identify with the workings of our environmental life-support system and gain an ethics-based awareness that their personal lifestyle decisions matter and that, collectively, the future is in their hands (UNESCO, 2006; Haigh, 2005).

For more than a decade, sustainable development, environmental management and the examination of the value systems of those whose decisions affect the environment have been core concerns for the Geography Fields at Oxford Brookes University. Throughout this period, learners have evaluated each module; many rated positively as effective and some as affective experiences. However, few attempts have been made to collect information on the environmental attitudes and values of the Geography students or to find out how these may be affected by the programme itself. Simply, neither the time nor the resources have been available. However, the award of a Brookes University Teaching Fellowship with an attached project grant, briefly, allowed space for such work and this pedagogic research project was initiated within (and then developed beyond) this window of opportunity.

This first report concerns an attempt to establish benchmarks for surveys of first-year and honours-level Geography students. It addresses the context of Brookes University’s student intake as represented by those who attended the Geography ‘Taster’ sessions at Brookes Open Day. It attempts to sample the environmental attitudes of the potential student together with his or her parent, both as individuals and working together as a cross-generational pair.

Method

A questionnaire survey was employed in an attempt to determine the environmental attitudes of potential students and their parents, whether they are significantly different and whether they are affected by gender. This data was collected, with the full approval of the respondents, as part of a class-work exercise conducted during a Brookes Open Day ‘Taster’ lecture that introduced the concept of ‘Deep Ecology’.

Deep Ecology is the root philosophy that underpins much of the thinking of those engaged with ‘Education for Sustainable Development’. It is developed through a three-step pedagogical process of ‘Ecological Self-realisation’ (Naess, 1987 and Table 1). Here, a class exercise involved learners, first in evaluating their own environmental attitudes with the help of a questionnaire and then attempting to situate themselves upon one or more of the three steps of Deep Ecology.

Table 1. The Three Steps of Deep Ecology Education (adapted from Haigh, 2002)
Step 1. Childhood: recognition of the personal Self This is where the individual realises a separate personal identity much as the infant discovers its ability to say ‘No’.
Step 2. Adolescence: recognition of the social Self This is where the self- is redefined as part of a social group; first small then expanding, hopefully, to include all humanity.
Step 3. Maturity: the ecological Self This is where the self is realised in terms of a role within the entirety of the living world. This includes the realisation that humanity is not alone, superior nor self-sufficient and that human existence depends upon a myriad of other creatures both macro- and microscopic all with the same rights to life as humanity itself.

The questionnaire survey instrument has been developed, iteratively, by staff and students in the context of three advanced-level modules: Environmental Philosophy, Gaia and The Ethical Geographer. The structure and argument of the questionnaire is set out in Table 2. This end product is, appropriately enough, very similar to the New Environmental Paradigm questionnaire used widely in the USA. Indeed, most questions map one to the other (Dunlap et al., 2000). However, this list of questions arose independently, and the methodology of its creation is closer to the ad hoc approach employed by DEFRA (2001). Its basis is some well-known, albeit earlier, sources of environmental understanding, many summarised within a ‘World Hypotheses Workbook’, which is still used by advanced students (Haigh, 1993). As the title suggests, this workbook explores the root metaphor concepts of Stephen Pepper (1942) and emphasises the divide between materialist and spiritual worldviews. Since, much of the work emerged from 1980s thinking, it also recognises several political stances – broadly, ‘Blue’, ‘Red’, ‘Green’ and ‘Saffron’ – in the sense of Mahatma Gandhi. Despite its long evolution and perhaps because of it, the questionnaire is a blunt instrument, but, for all its imperfections, it seems to provide useful information at several levels (cf., Lalonde and Jackson, 2002).

Table 2. ‘Environmental Attitudes Questionnaire’: (Responses were scored on a scale from 5: “Strongly agree” through 3: No Opinion /Neutral to 1: Strongly Disagree).
1. Most environmental problems can be solved by advances in technology. First of a set of four ‘easy’ starter questions seeking the degree of support for popular solutions to present environmental difficulties. All four are materialist and anthropocentric since they place human activity centre stage. Broadly, the political stance is Red/Blue, Blue, Red and Green.
2. Most environmental problems can be solved through the production of wealth in a free market.
3. Most environmental problems can be solved by a better redistribution of wealth
4. Most environmental problems can be solved by changes in our life style.
5. Human beings have the right to exploit Nature for their own profit. This pair explores attitudes to rights versus duties. The first fishes for selfish attitudes from the ego-stage of Ecological Self-realisation. The second for attitudes at the Eco-stage. The politics are Red/Blue versus Green/Saffron.
6. Human beings have a duty to preserve the environment for future generations.
7. Environmental sustainability is the most important concern for human society. This pair is deliberately contradictory. In theory, you should not agree with both, a problem that bothered few respondents. The statements oppose anthropocentric, ‘Shallow Ecology’ and ecocentric ‘Deep Ecology’. The politics are Green versus Red/Blue.
8. Human welfare is the most important concern for human society.
9. The rights of other living organisms are subordinate to those of human beings, This pair also examines the divide between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. The politics divide Red/Blue from Green/Saffron.
10. It is OK to sacrifice environmental quality if this benefits human society as a whole.
11. Human beings are the “crown of all creation”. This conventional dyad contrasts the extreme, positive, often theistic, stance associated with Neo-conservatism with the negative stance of their Environmentalist political opponents. The politics are Blue and Red/Green.
12. Human beings are the “cancer of the Earth”.
13. Human beings are merely a “cog in the machinery of Nature”. In this pair, the cog-wheel metaphor, like Spaceship earth, implies a Mechanist, materialist view of the role of humanity – machines can be controlled and driven. The One is the spiritual, Organicist viewpoint of Gaia, Gandhi and Deep Ecology. The politics are Red/Green and Green/Saffron
14. ‘Human beings and Nature are One,’ a single living wholeness.
What is missing? Modern Education for Sustainable Development has shifted emphasis from the impersonal, still represented by this questionnaire, to the personal. One gap that needs closing involves a set of questions overtly concerning personal responses.

The questionnaire was administered to Open Day visitors in four sessions, two in each of 2005 and 2006. The sample, thus far, contains 131 respondents (Table 3).

Table 3: Open Day Visitors Sample
Open day Visitor Parent
Sample (N:131) 72 59
Male 42 30
Female 30 29
2005 35 31
2006 34 28
Team Response 27 26

Results

The results (Table 4) show a strong, general, commitment to the ethics of sustainable development, often translated as ‘living as though the future mattered’. There is also strong support for the notion that the future is a personal matter and that environmental sustainability is a key concern for the present time. There is weaker support for ideas that suggest that humans are a part of Nature. There is cautious support for prioritising human welfare but not if this is at the expense of the environment. Humans have no right to exploit Nature; they are not the ‘crown of creation’ and probably should not consider the rights of other organisms to be less than their own. They should not rely on free market economics to solve the world’s problems. Expressed in this form, the summary reads like a prospectus for Education for Sustainable Development (UNESCO, 2006) or perhaps a manifesto from the Green Party.

Table 4. Results

(5 strongly positive, 3 neutral, 1 strongly negative)

Mean (SD) Mean Difference from Neutral T-test

(p<)

6. Human beings have a duty to preserve the environment for future generations. 4.71 (+/-0.456) +1.710 0.000
4 Most environmental problems can be solved by changes in our life style. 4.05 (+/-0.788) +1.053 0.000
7. Environmental sustainability is the most important concern for human society. 3.82 (+/-0.890) +0.824 0.000
13. Human beings are merely a “cog in the machinery of Nature”. 3.55 (+/-0.986) +0.550 0.000
14. ‘Human beings and Nature are One’ a single living wholeness. 3.53 (+/-0.987) +0.534 0.000
8. Human welfare is the most important concern for human society. 3.46 (+/-0.806) +0.458 0.000
3. Most environmental problems can be solved by a better redistribution of wealth. 3.15 (+/-0.988) +0.153 0.079
1. Most environmental problems can be solved by advances in technology. 2.90 (+/-0.935) -0.099 0.227
12. Human beings are the “cancer of the Earth”. 2.76 (+/-1.053) -0.224 0.009
9. The rights of other living organisms are subordinate to those of human beings. 2.51 (+/-0.995) -0.489 0.000
11. Human beings are the “crown of all creation”. 2.44 (+/-0.993) -0.565 0.000
2. Most environmental problems can be solved through the production of wealth in a free market. 2.44 (+/-0.921) -0.565 0.000
10. It is OK to sacrifice environmental quality if this benefits human society as a whole 2.16 (+/-0.901) -0.840 0.000
5. Human beings have the right to exploit Nature for their own profit. 1.69 (+/-0.953) -1.313 0.000

The statistical analysis in Table 4 is based on the raw questionnaire results screened by a one-sample T-test, in order to determine which of the sets of responses were really significantly different from neutral. Normally, one might accept a probability of less than 1 in 20 (p<0.05) that the difference was due to chance alone. However, with 14 questions tested, this raises a strong possibility that one should be due to chance. So, this exercise employs a stronger level of significance – 1 in 500 (p<0.002) for its threshold while suggesting that results in the p= 0.05-0.002 range might be thought of as ‘possibly significant’. In this first test, all but three sets of responses scored significantly different from neutral.

Some respondents – those identified as ‘parents’ or ‘cross-generational’ teams – went further than merely ticking the questionnaire boxes. They annotated their returns with comments, many of them of the ‘should be but isn’t’ (Respondent R22-2006) variety against questions 6, 4, and 7 at the top of Table 4’s positive (i.e.; ‘strongly agree’) section. As for the others, statement 14 sparked most comment: ‘If humans and Nature are one, why are we destroying it’ asked R43-2006; ‘real understanding and respect might be a start’ thought R72/73-2005, who also pointed out the incongruity of the asbestos ceiling of the classroom, while R23-2006 wrote at length to the effect that ‘feeling a small part of a large entity makes you feel more powerful…just as having a second child expands your love and makes you feel more strongly…’. Several respondents suggested their own recipes for a more sustainable future: ‘Persuade/educate decision makers to think long term…localise not centralise…emphasise quality over quantity…educate’ advocated a Retired Director of Planning (R03-2006); ‘save fuel…support people who work from home’ (R63-2005); ‘everyone should have an allotment for growing vegetables’ (R91/92-2005); ‘recycling…’ (R120/121-2005), ‘each individual making small life changes – but its hard in the modern world to stick to one’s principles’ worried R70/71-2005. Only one form was annotated with the comment: ‘I am so bored…not at all inspiring…’ (R04-2006), which, given the level of exposure of this topic and the struggle that sustainability television programmes have for audiences, is quite surprising.

The above, of course, lumps together responses from several different categories of respondent. So the next section considers whether gender, the generation gap, the year of survey, or the experience of working alone or with a parent/child made any significant difference to the responses. The null hypothesis for these tests is that there was no significant difference.

nH 1. Gender is not associated with any significantly different responses to the Environmental Attitudes Questionnaire.

The null hypothesis is challenged by just one question. There is a possibly significant difference in responses to the statement ‘Human beings have the right to exploit Nature for their own profit’. Here, while both male and female respondents rejected the statement, the female respondents’ response was far stronger than the male (Scores 1.5 vs 1.9; p=0.01).

nH 2. Generation (parent versus teenage child) is not associated with any significantly different responses to the Environmental Attitudes Questionnaire.

Once again, the survey finds no reason to reject this null hypothesis, except in the case of one question. This was the statement that ‘Human beings have the duty to preserve the environment for the future’. Here, both parents and children supported the statement strongly. However, the support was, possibly significantly, even stronger from the parents (Score 4.8 vs 4.6; p=0.05).

nH3. Year of survey is not associated with any significantly different responses to the Environmental Attitudes Questionnaire.

The results from this contained some surprises for, while the above null hypothesis was never rejected, differences in the responses to three questions scored in the possibly significant category. In 2006, there was a, probably significant, reduction in the negative reaction to the assertions that ‘Human beings are the crown of creation’ as both several religions and evolutionary biology propose in their different ways (Score 2.2 vs 2.6; p=0.008) and that ‘It is OK to sacrifice environmental quality if this benefits human society as a whole’ (Score 2.0 vs. 2.4; p=0.01), compared to 2005. This suggests that the 2006 sample was just a little more anthropocentric in their approach to the environment that of the previous year. Finally, there was also a sight decline in the negative reaction to the argument that most environmental problems can be solved by advances in technology (Score 2.3 vs 2.6; p=0.04). Possibly, together, these reflect increasing social concern about the impacts of climatic change on human welfare?

nH4. Working in an intergeneration team of 2 (rather than alone) is not associated with any significantly different responses to the Environmental Attitudes Questionnaire.

From a research point of view, this is by far the most interesting test. It tackles the issue of individual versus negotiated values. It includes the frisson of familial role-play. One might assume that parents would adopt positions judged suitably parental and teenagers react by asserting their independence. The missing part of this test would have had both participants filling in the questionnaires as individuals first and then collectively – but this was not possible in the classroom circumstances of the survey. Instead, this test contrasts different populations.

In the event, there was no reason to challenge the null hypothesis in 10/14 tests. However, in one case, the diffe
rence between the two samples was significant. While individual respondents were neutral concerning the statement, ‘Most environmental problems can be solves by advances in technology’, the family teams reacted more negatively (Score 3.1 vs. 2.6: p=0.002), although none of the reactions are very far from neutral, so there seem to be few strong feelings involved. Among three other possibly significant differences, the teams were also more negative about the statement ‘Human beings are the crown or creation’, (Score 2.6 vs. 2.2; p=0.006) and ‘Most environmental problems can be solved through the production of wealth in a free market economy’ (Score 2.6 vs. 2.2; p=0.019). In both cases, the negotiated/team rejection of the two assertions was stronger than those expressed by individuals, which may reflect the adoption of an ‘ought to’ approach more than a personally felt position on these topics. Finally, individuals responded much more positively to the argument that ‘Human beings and Nature are one, a single living wholeness’, perhaps reflecting their protection of a private spirituality (Score 3.7 vs. 3.3; p=0.026).

nH5. The responses of parents and offspring working together but recording their reactions separately on a single Environmental Attitudes Questionnaire are not significantly different.

Where parents and offspring recorded their responses, individually, on the same report form, there are almost no differences in the two sets of responses. Even where responses were recorded, collaboratively, but on different sheets, there was great similarity. Unfortunately, statistical analysis of this data is restricted by the small sample size (only 27 paired cases), which much increases the requirements for the recognition of statistical significance. Presently, none of the differences in the patterns of parent versus offspring responses are great enough to challenge acceptance of the null hypothesis. However, one comes tantalisingly close. Parents reacted more positively to the suggestion that ‘Environmental sustainability is the major concern for human society’ (Score 4.0 vs. 3.6; p=0.08), perhaps a natural response, given the proximity of their investment in the future – their children. Were this difference in score repeated in a larger sample, the outcome would quickly become significant but, for now, this remains only a possibility.

Discussion

Environmental attitudes are considered important precursors of pro-environmental and pro-future behaviour (UNESCO, 2006). It is also suggested that achieving success in environmental education for sustainable development depends on appropriate teacher understanding of the attitudes held by learners (Rickinson, 2001). Rickinson also identifies a shortage of work that tackles the nature, rather than extent, of environmental concern among learners in secondary education and a broad consensus that these learners may also influence the attitudes of their parents. Finally, Rickinson calls for more longitudinal research, less fragmentation of research and greater depth (2001). This project seeks to address these issues by tackling a range of environmental learners, although it contributes to research fragmentation by not adopting the New Environmental Paradigm in favour of its locally created clone. However, it does address the key insight that environmental attitudes emerge from a person’s more general set of values and that these are negotiated within families (Rickinson, 2001; Stern and Dietz, 1994). This study suggests that hard instrumental attitudes about environmental issues may be rejected more firmly by the family collect than individuals.

The lecture context of the study concerned the expansion of each respondent’s personal identification, from ego to eco, based on the relative importance that a person places on his or herself. Stern and Dietz (1994) call these value systems egoistic, social-altruistic and biospheric, and these three clusters have emerged in studies of American undergraduate students (Schultz, 2001). This survey finds its Open Day respondents more positive to social-altruistic and biospheric attitudes than to egoistic. There is a greater emphasis upon responsibilities and social duties than rights.

The value basis theory of Stern and Dietz (1994) also suggests that attitudes about environmental issues are the result of more general underlying beliefs, often expressed in political terms, but moderated by concerns for harmful consequences to valued objects. For example, the annual national surveys of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy report that while Americans are profoundly divided over national politics, most worry about environmental problems and rate the environment among the top three challenges of the decades ahead (Yale, 2005). Equally, this survey found increasing concern for human wellbeing a difference between the two years of survey.

Concerning the generation gap, this survey suggests that the longer time perspective of the parents encourages them to register greater concern about the future. As for gender, a 1993 survey of 349 American college students found that while there was no difference in the strength of value orientations, women had greater concerns about consequences for self, others, and the biosphere (Stern et al., 1993). This survey does not much substantiate these ideas although it suggests that women are less inclined to assert their environmental rights than males.

Overall, the responses to the questionnaire are notable for their rejection of most conventional prescriptions for the environment and for a future-oriented stance similar to the time ethic commended by UNESCO (UNESCO, 2006). There is a significant rejection of ideas that suggest that humans are outside nature, significant concern for the welfare of the future, more agreement that this is a personal responsibility and less that it can be solved by third-party solutions such as the market or technology. There is unease about the human assumption that the species has the right to use the Earth as it wills. There is a concern for human welfare, although this is often subordinated to that for the environment, so the overall political stance of the respondents is more ‘Green’ than conventionally ‘Blue’ or ‘Red’, which may be a function of their shared interest in Geography and Physical Geography.

The question remains, are these attitudes shared by students who have been through the Geography programmes? Is there no change, do our graduates have a more instrumental and exploitative approach to the world, or do they emerge with ideas still closer to the ideals of education for sustainable development (Berry, 1999)?

Conclusion

Incoming Brookes Geography and Physical Geography students emerge from a milieu that considers that humans are a part of Nature, and have responsibilities both to future generations and to the environment. They reject the idea that humans have special rights or that they have the right to exploit either Nature or other species. They consider that changes in personal lifestyle are needed to secure the future and are sceptical that environmental problems can be solved by either economics or technological a
dvance. Respondents working in cross generational family pairs were significantly more negative than individuals to the notion that most environmental problems can be solved by advances in technology and, possibly, less inclined towards the notion that human beings are the crown of creation.

Overall, the responses of these Open Day visitors show strong support for the ethos of Education for Sustainable Development and for living as if the future mattered, although this may be a reflection of a shared interest in Geography rather than another discipline.

Further studies will continue to compare responses from first- and third-year Brookes’ Geography students and from external environmental enthusiasts with this benchmark.

Author details

Martin Haigh is Professor of Geography and a University Teaching Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, where his special interest is Education for Sustainable Development and sustainable development in practice, especially with respect to the reconstruction of landscapes damaged by coal mining. Currently, he is co-editor of the Journal of Geography in Higher Education and Vice President of the Human Impact on Land Systems Working Group of the International Association of Geomorphologists. His current research concerns Sattvic educational futures.

References

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